Fighters up and down Saturday's card in Nottingham, England (4 p.m. ET, Fuel TV), are at career crossroads, pulling into the filling station looking for directions. And the fight promotion itself is coming off a draining month that's left it running on fumes.
Consider the main event, a heavyweight fight featuring a guy slowly and steadily climbing toward the top of the division against one who's twice tried and failed to crest the hill and is geared up to have another go at it.
The climber is Stipe Miocic, who is 9-0 with knockouts in all but two of those victories. Coming off an eye-opening KO of another then-unbeaten rising star, Shane del Rosario, the former Golden Gloves boxer and NCAA Division I collegiate wrestler is in need of a bigger challenge to shift his uphill drive into higher gear.
That bigger challenge, that tall task, comes in the form of 6-foot-11-inch Stefan Struve, who is on a three-fight win streak -- finishes in all three -- after slipping up in two previous climbs up the ladder. Of course, those slipups came against the likes of Travis Browne and Roy Nelson, and Struve's other UFC loss -- in his debut with the promotion -- came against Junior dos Santos, the man whom all contenders now are climbing toward.
And there are plenty contenders setting their sights on Dos Santos and his heavyweight belt. In the not-too-distant past, a Struve vs. Miocic fight might have been hyped as a glittery showcase for the sport's next big thing. But there's no need for this fight to fill a vacuum. Dos Santos already is scheduled for a Dec. 30 rematch with Cain Velasquez, the man he dethroned last year.
Alistair Overeem, currently unlicensed after testing positive for an elevated testosterone level, is banking on being cleared to return at year's end so he can reclaim his spot at the head of the line for the next title shot. Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson, coaches for Season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter, are slated to meet during the reality show's live finale Dec. 15. And Daniel Cormier, winner of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, will join the UFC heavyweight ranks after his final Strikeforce bout Nov. 3. So there are plenty of big, strong bodies clogging the path ahead of Saturday's main event fighters.
Even UFC president Dana White, who's never met a fight he couldn't talk up like it was the Thrilla in Manila, has tempered expectations during the buildup. After proclaiming Struve vs. Miocic as "a big fight for the heavyweight division" during a press conference earlier this week, he went on to say, "These two are going to fight to become No. 5 or 6 in the world in the heavyweight division."
Not to diminish what it means to be the fifth or sixth best heavyweight fighter in the whole world, or what it means to have someone snatch that status away and send you tumbling into the vast nothingness below, but this weekend's featured fight is clearly not going to get either fighter to his destination. But one man will emerge from this road test with a full tank of high-octane confidence.
The co-main event is less about traveling to some metaphoric mountaintop than it is about finding a home right where you are. That's not an entirely allegoric image for one of the welterweights battling to avoid eviction by the UFC. Dan Hardy is at home in the most literal sense. He was born in Nottingham, was raised and went to university there, and still lives in the city in the British midlands when he's not training in Las Vegas. "It's just very exciting," he said earlier this week. "I can pack my bag and walk to the arena from my apartment."
Packing a bag is one thing. Being sent packing is another. And it's the latter that Hardy dodged in his last fight, a knockout of Duane Ludwig back in May. Hardy stopped not just Ludwig that night but also a four-fight losing streak. Even though two of those defeats came against the UFC welterweight champion, Georges St-Pierre, and the interim champ, Carlos Condit, there's little doubt that Hardy -- even though his exciting stand-and-bang style makes him a favorite of Dana White -- would have been gonzo if he didn't take care of business against Ludwig. The stakes might not be so high as he faces Amir Sadollah this time, but Hardy is determined to put his career on ever-more-solid ground. "I've never lost in Nottingham," he said, referring to four pre-UFC wins in his hometown, "and I never will."
Never is a starkly definitive word, one that resounds with import long after it's no longer germaine. The UFC learned that the hard way recently, and can no longer boast that it's never cancelled a fight card. So closing out a trying month in this low-key way seems fitting.
To carry the fueling station metaphor as far down a dead end street as it'll go, this weekend's event represents the UFC exiting taking-a-toll-on-you expressway for a less frenetic amble along a dusty back street. Nottingham is not the gridlocked metropolis of the promotion's home base and site of its embarrassing cancellation, Las Vegas, or even the venue for last weekend's high-pressure redemptive fight card, Toronto. And Fuel TV is not exactly the entertainment superhighway, either, available as it is in, oh, around a dozen homes.
So the spotlight is dimmed for UFC on Fuel TV, and while the stakes still are high -- because they're always high when it's your career -- this weekend is not a high-wire act. Take a deep breath, feel re-inspired and refueled, and enjoy the fights.